Faced with the reality of SB-4’s ugly shadow hanging over Texas, AILA has made the decision to move its Annual Conference (AC) in 2018, originally scheduled to take place in Texas, to another state.  As a member of AILA’s Executive Committee, I worked with my colleagues on the Board of Governors to review our options to determine how best to “walk the talk” of AILA’s mission.  If we as an organization are committed to promoting fair and just immigration laws, how then should we respond when the state where we were to hold our premier event of the year – an event that brings thousands of immigration attorneys, professors, and law students together as well as millions of dollars in revenue and spending power – has passed a law that promotes injustice against our members and clients and is so blatantly contrary to our mission?

There are a lot of questions from our members and partners about how we made the decision to leave Texas and what the repercussions might be.  While we are negotiating with the Gaylord in Texas and potential new sites, we are limited on how much we can share, but what I can share is that this decision was not rash, impulsive or easy.

The Executive Committee has been aware of SB-4 as it moved through the Texas legislature and has been reviewing the potential impact on our conference. Once the bill was signed into law, we were compelled to hold an emergency Board of Governors meeting to vote on how the organization would respond regarding the AC in 2018.

Our Board of Governors includes chapter chairs from every AILA chapter, elected directors, a new members’ division representative, past presidents and the executive committee. The members of the Board of Governors are from around the country and have diverse practice areas; they are also elected by the membership to oversee the business of the Association and have a fiduciary responsibility which is not taken lightly.

Several perspectives were offered about where AILA should stand – against SB-4’s discriminatory practices and thus move the conference, or somehow build in opportunities for members to take a stand against SB-4 and keep the conference in Texas. After much discussion, the possible impact we would have by staging a visible, meaningful event to signal our opposition seemed small compared to the opportunity we would have as a leading voice in opposition to this legislation and to let the Texas legislators and the Governor know that there are economic consequences for passing this law.

There was a very thorough discussion about the projected impact on both sides of the equation – AILA would be subject to financial penalties for cancelling our contract, yes, but these costs were weighed against the financial losses we could expect from low attendance.  When we book a conference venue, AILA is responsible for bringing members to a site.  We heard from many groups of members from around the country who were clear that they would not attend the next AC.  Our members expressed real concern about attending a conference in a state that passed SB-4 which prohibits local, state and campus police departments from adopting or allowing any policy or practice which limits the enforcement of immigration laws.  This could mean that if a local police officer pulls someone over for a traffic stop, the officer may be required to request verification of legal status of the driver and anyone else in the car.  If the person does not have evidence of legal status or the officer is unable to determine the legal status, the officer would be required provide that information to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services or to take that person into custody and turn them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The risk to our members is real and we heard from many who had first hand experience with this type of legislation or practices in their own states; members who did not support staying in Texas and subjecting other members to the injustices of SB-4. As someone who would likely not personally face prejudice, and while acknowledging that many of our members would not be impacted by this law personally, it is undeniable that many might be;  I heard and respect their concerns.

We discussed the impact our decision would have on the TX/OK/NM Chapter. While we are moving the AC from Texas, we are not abandoning the chapter or boycotting the state.  We support the chapter and commit resources to their battle against SB-4.  We will also work to support members of the immigrant community who need legal advice. AILA maintains our strong support of the work of our members at the detention center in Dilley, Texas, others at the southern border and throughout the state. While we have chosen to take our premier event someplace else, we will not be turning away from the opportunity to stand against this law.  Working with our courageous TX/OK/NM Chapter, AILA National is committed to engaging in dialogue with communities in Texas and challenging its elected officials to overturn this harmful legislation.

Texas was originally chosen as a location in part due to its rich immigrant history – from the earliest settlers from Mexico to the those involved in oil exploration from Northern Europe and the Middle East to NASA scientists and engineers and its universities’ leading researchers, professors and scholars from around the world.  SB-4 does not reflect the true value of Texas’ immigrant history.

The 2018 Annual Conference has special importance for me, as after years of volunteer leadership on AILA’s national Executive Committee, it is where I am to be installed as President of AILA. Doing so in a state which passed a bill like SB-4 does not align with my beliefs or values and it does not align with AILA’s mission. Taking everything into account, the AILA Board of Governors took a principled stand to move the conference, but we are not backing down from the fight to repeal SB-4. Standing together against injustice at the local, state, and federal levels and standing together with our members – that’s part of being AILA and “walking the talk.”

Written by Anastasia Tonello, AILA First Vice President